On a windy hillside in rural Dorset, Carey Mulligan is in the middle of turning down a marriage proposal when the low drone of a tractor engine interrupts. “Cut,” calls Thomas Vinterberg, the Danish director standing a few yards away with a monitor. Mulligan is perfectly turned out as Bathsheba Everdene, the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd, and there’s not a sign of the 21st century in the picture. But the production’s microphones are picking up the sound of a local farmer at work. If only he’d been considerate enough to work with a horse and plow.
In this scene, Bathsheba refuses to marry the dependable shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the first of three suitors who vie for her hand. (Michael Sheen, as the obsessive farmer William Boldwood, and Tom Sturridge, as the rakish Sergeant Francis Troy, round out the trio.) Like any proper British costume drama–including John Schlesinger’s 1967 big-screen version of Hardy’s tale, which starred Julie Christie as Bathsheba–this adaptation of Madding Crowd, which recently opened in selected cities and is due on more screens in coming weeks, employs the kind of environmental flourishes that would make Downton Abbey fans swoon. Behind Mulligan and Schoenaerts lie rolling hills of unspoiled land; the rustic building in the background was rethatched by order of the filmmakers to better evoke the period. Characters wearing perfectly designed 19th century clothing meet amid lush woods and grandly dilapidated country estates.
It’s pretty much everything that Vinterberg used to hate. Just over 20 years ago, he and fellow Danish director Lars van Trier founded Dogme 95, a movement intended to strip the artifice out of movies. Handheld cameras were a must; special lighting and background music were forbidden. Directors weren’t to be credited, and notably, genre films and period pieces were out. Vinterberg’s acclaimed 1998 film The Celebration, about the dark family secrets revealed at a patriarch’s birthday party, set the precedent.
So why is he working on this tableau of romance, murder and bespoke costuming? “I’m here to make it believable,” says Vinterberg, who looks younger than his 45 years and is rarely without a grin. “To get past the frocks and bonnets and dusty layers of period movies and get into the inner lives of these characters and the inner life of the landscapes.”
Vinterberg is the first to admit that he breaks every one of his old rules in Madding Crowd. Yet Sheen later tells me that the stripped-down influence of Dogme 95 was still palpable on the set. “You can see that what he’s drawn to is what’s going on between the characters,” Sheen says. “Rather than resorting to any kind of clichéd costume-drama surfaces, he wants to get beneath that.”
Mulligan and the director had long conversations about Bathsheba, a flawed, headstrong woman who runs her own farm and observes few social conventions. “The anti-costume-drama heroine,” Mulligan calls her. (The character’s surname has its own contemporary echo as the inspiration for Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games books.) “I’m trying to promote her feminism and her practicality,” Mulligan says, “and then Thomas will remind me of her femininity as well, which Hardy also has in her.”
Although much of the plot revolves around Bathsheba’s romantic entanglements–each of her suitors represents a different kind of love: Oak is affection, Boldwood security and Troy passion–the story is “not about a girl who wants to get married,” Mulligan says. “That’s actively what she doesn’t want. Her agenda is about her own life.”
Which is what makes this Far From the Madding Crowd such a modern statement. Bathsheba makes her share of mistakes in love and business, but she winds up earning one of Hardy’s rare happy endings. Don’t let the Victorian setting fool you: this heroine manages to achieve the very contemporary dream of having it all.
This appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of TIME.